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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Computer Game Design in the Classroom - Stencyl as a tool for creating Flash games


I've been briefly highlighting some computer game creation tools over the past week.  The first two articles are here:


For this installment I want to focus on my current resource of choice:

Stencyl

Update 2/2/2014:  I recently posted a review of a book that will be great resource for learning Stencyl:  Learning Stencyl 3.x Game Development. If you are considering using Stencyl in class or if you are just learning the program, I recommend the book.

I wrote recently about Stencyl and I have featured a few games I created.  For now, I'll briefly touch on my experience, the pros and cons and why I like this tool the best.

My Experience
My first attempt to use Stencyl was met with frustration, but I revisited it this summer after I realized they updated to version 2.0.  They also expanded some of the documentation.  Those changes helped me to understand the elements and I was able to create a few games.  Two of them are hosted here on the Stencyl Arcade.

Like many other tools, users arrange code blocks rather than typing all the lines of a program.  That's generally a nice touch, though sometimes blocks are annoying.  I'm used to the old fashioned way!

But even if a user finds the blocks to their liking, it's not exactly easy to make a game.  It is probably easy to modify some existing games that are available, and that's a great place to start, but to create a game from scratch requires a lot of logic and planning.  And that doesn't even involve actually learning the elements of Stencyl itself.

For example, my games were simple in the fact that I did not need to handle collisions or many different "scenes" based on player interaction.  I made some simple card games.  The computer never had to respond with anything that resembled AI.  Animations were very simple.

But the logic behind some scoring elements made my head spin.  Dealing with lists (arrays) can always be an exercise in the abstract, but that along with how they're handled in Stencyl was a challenge for me.  My son, who will be in seventh grade this year, was surprised by the complexity of that part of the code.  He wasn't even interested in learning what it did or how I figured it out.  I know most students around that grade level would feel about the same toward it.

It's a simple fact that creating a decent game can be difficult on many levels.  It will be time consuming and require a lot of thought.  If anyone doubts this, they should read a few posts in the forums at Stencyl.  I can't even understand many of the technical discussions.

But why do I prefer it over other tools?  Because I am able to make games that are easily played online...at least with a computer.  Here are the positives and negatives in brief.

Positives

  • Stencyl can make a great variety of games.  Even with the free version, one can make action games, puzzle games, card games, etc.  There are limits, but compared to Gamestar Mechanic this offers a universe of options for students to explore.
  • The free version makes Flash games that can be played online.  While Flash isn't good for iPads or other mobile devices, it provides more accessibility for free than the other game creation tools that I explored.  
  • There is fairly good documentation to get started.  It's not perfect and I didn't find anything geared specifically for educators yet, but it was helpful.  The forums also provide good support for new game designers.  I didn't use the video tutorials, but they do have some created by users that might be helpful for budding programmers.  

Negatives

  • As I mentioned above, a game of any complexity is still going to take some serious work.  Besides just the logic and learning Stencyl itself, gathering or creating graphics and sound effects was a big job even for my simple games.
  • It boasts the ability to make iOS games, but that will be costly.  You have to buy the Pro version and you need to pay for Apple's developers program as well.  Realistically for many schools, Flash games are about all you'll get out of this.

So for me the positives clearly outweighed those couple negatives.  I'm thrilled with what I learned and that I now have a few computer games that I can use in the classroom this year.

My biggest lesson so far is that I really can appreciate the work that goes into making a great computer game!  From graphics to sound to the programming itself, it's demanding.  Hopefully more students will see this and their desire to make games will motivate them to that level of effort.

2 comments:

  1. This article is really exciting and it has a useful information that can help us. Thanks for sharing it I appreciate this information. Keep it up.

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  2. Mike,
    Thanks for posting this and affirming my initial thoughts regarding the complexity of Stencyl compared to other tools. I teach game design and development in a middle school (grades 7 and 8) and have had great success with Gamestar Mechanic with my 7th graders and GameMaker, Portal 2 PuzzleMaker, and MineCraft with my 8th graders.
    Steve
    http://gamesandlearning1.blogspot.com

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